Mali Bain Integrates Wellbeing into School Communities

Apr 12th, 2016

Community Champion Q&A 

Mali Bain’s passion for children and youth’s mental health and wellbeing has led her to become the Provincial Lead of BC’s WellAhead program, a philanthropic initiative of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. As a former secondary school teacher with roots in International Development, Bain has first hand experience with how the school system influences children’s wellbeing.

The WellAhead initiative bloomed after two years of listening and learning from various advocates representing numerous sectors. This initiative was inspired by the Social Innovation Lab approach to focus upstream and encourage the development of Everyday Practices that will improve the social, mental and emotional wellbeing of youth today, and generations to come.

BC Healthy Communities: Can you tell me a little bit about your work with WellAhead?

Mali Bain: Child and youth wellbeing is the domain, and the focus of this initiative became Everyday Practices; the things people can do to support their social and emotional wellbeing, and the things people can do day-to-day as a part of their everyday life in school. 

"Schools are a place where we can put in a bit of extra something and make a significant difference." - Mali Bain

So, not something extra you have to add on, not a big program that you have to sign up for, but rather a little nugget of something you can take on and do differently – and doing something differently might really support wellbeing.

One common example is greetings. So, just taking the time to make eye contact and greet every student every day is really meaningful and makes a big difference. We talked to our colleagues at McCreary who do research in this area, and they were saying that when students dropout of school, one of the things they say is ,‘People didn’t even know my name’; that is a reason they give for dropping out! ‘I didn’t feel I belonged because no one greeted me, no one welcomed me, no one even knew that I was there’.

The other piece that we are really focusing on this year is we are trying out an approach inspired by Social Innovation Labs. The Social Innovation Labs are really designed for spaces where a challenge is really complex, where there isn’t a simple solution, and where a linear or typical planning approach might not lead to the results we’re expecting. We are working with six school districts [in BC] to guide them through a social innovation process to understand what the Everyday Practices are.

We are now in a phase of prototyping to see what it is like when we scale out and share these [Everyday Practices] with other teachers.

BCHC: What has the initial reaction to WellAhead process and the Social Innovation Labs been so far?

MB: People are saying ‘this is a different way of thinking’, and it is a challenging way of thinking that they are really appreciating. They are seeing momentum building – I was just in Squamish with the school district there and they were doing their prototype team launch, and those who have been doing this work for some time are really inspired to see already the momentum that is being built and the cohesion around trying something together.

We are also hearing an appreciation that this is not a closed process. I think often schools expect to get a complete program, like, ‘the program is this, you do this, these are the six steps with this toolkit and here is the evaluation. Here is a PDF of 100 pages describing the whole thing’. The fact that we are not doing that and we really are open to shifting it as we are going along is welcome for people, and challenging in itself in a different way.

What is also neat is that we are hearing different voices enter into this area. We are hearing excitement coming from people who haven’t really ever been a part of these conversations and now they are thinking about how they can be involved in this way.

BCHC: Do you have a highlight or “Aha!” moment that stands out to you?

MB: Some of the ‘Ahas’ have been in moving from complexity to simplicity. When we began, we had very detailed facilitators guide of 20 pages for a three-hour session with a lot of complexity, and I was involved in about eight of these Ideation sessions. By the end, the ‘Aha’ moment was ‘This isn’t so complex! Now I know the inflection points and the moments that really need to happen’.

It really shows the value in trying these processes more than once. Distilling and finding the real nuggets of wisdom has been the process of the fall. The process of allowing it to evaporate and see what lands; we put a lot of things out, but what is really landing? What is really sticking? What are the juiciest bits?

BCHC: What makes you so passionate about this work?

MB: Working in schools again is such a passion for me – I grew up in a small town on northern Vancouver Island and ever since leaving that high school I have had an awareness of how those years has an impact on the rest of life, so I have a desire to make this experience better for others than it was for me and to have an influence in schools the way my best role models in high school had.

I’ve always appreciated the concept of making a marginal difference; so ‘where can I put my time and energy that will actually shift the dial because of my time and energy’, and I really feel as though schools are a place where we can put in a bit of extra something and make a significant difference. With this small investment of time and energy we are making a difference in our future and generations to come.

The other piece that I see in WellAhead is the piece of tackling what to me is a major challenge in our society. The Vancouver Foundation came out with their reports, and isolation is a major challenge in Vancouver and all over BC, it is something that I struggled with from time to time, and it is something I know people are addressing.

I am really interested in thinking about how we can shift small ways to create more of a sense of inclusion, belonging, and community; the kinds of things some cultures and societies take for granted. I am quite inspired by seeing the potential of these everyday practices and the potential to shift behaviour in meaningful ways.

BCHC: How do you envision the future of WellAhead?

MB: That is a great question, and it is a question we are asking our team in the next month. What I know is that in the next five years something will be happening across Canada, and I know that for the next two years we will be working within BC. Right now, we are working with the school districts and some wise and inspiring individuals in BC to try to think about what would be the most effective direction for WellAhead.

One of the things that is interesting about taking this emergent approach is that we are not sold on [this process]…I could say “We are going to do a similar process as we did this year in another x number of districts next year” and I am not sold on doing that for sure. We will do a similar process as this year if it seems like an important intervention.

There is a strong desire to go deeper and dive in where there is potential for transformative and systemic change in a way that maybe isn’t possible on a shorter span, but is when you engage a bit longer.

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